Design by the book

You have to study the piece called "Inversion" for a minute to fully appreciate the joke.

Jim Rosenau, an artist based in Berkeley, Calif., has crafted a fully functional and aesthetically appealing bookshelf from five volumes. Three tomes are used for the flat part of the shelf, while another two make up the brackets.

So far, so good.

Now, look closely at what's actually resting on that shelf. They're not … are they? Yep — there are a dozen neatly lined up, book-shaped blocks of wood.

Bet you just smiled.

For home decorators and artists alike, books are the new bricks. They pile them up, paint them and drip wax over them.

"The climate has changed in the past five years," says Rosenau, who sells tables made from a stack of legal books, and chairs with oversized "pencils" for legs from his website, http://www.thisintothat.com. (His work retails for $45-$600.)

"People no longer view my furniture through a transgressive lens," he says. "Few people have that shocked reaction, 'My God, he cuts up books.' "

When Rosenau started his company in 2002, he was one of the few artists who repurposed old books. Now when he exhibits at national crafts show, he has plenty of company.

For instance, fashionistas have been snapping up the handbags that Caitlin Phillips of Rebound Designs crafts from such beloved novels as "Sense and Sensibility" and "Jane Eyre."

In 2004, when Phillips first realized that a hardback book was the ideal size and shape for a purse, she initially feared consumer backlash.

"I made my first purses from Reader's Digest Condensed Books because they are the lowest form of books," she says. "I had no idea how popular they would be. But the market really exploded. I quit my job three months after making the first one."

When Phillips' wallets and purses ($30-$250, http://www.etsy.com/shop/rebounddesigns) aren't toting around their owners' wallets and lipsticks, they can be shelved in the library, just like any other volume.

"They are useful purses and they are fully functional, but most people won't want to carry the same purse every day," Phillips says. "The handle tucks away inside when you're not using it. It looks just like a book when you put it on a shelf."

Most artists want the books they are transforming to be instantly recognizable as former reading material. That's kind of the point.

But under the skilled hands of Baltimore artist Susan Brandt, Agatha Christie paperbacks undergo a profound metamorphosis. Brandt cut up the pages of one of the original Miss Marple mysteries, "The Body in the Library," into thin strips. She then "knitted" the paper into a 4-by-2-foot shawl ($800, http://www.susanbrandt.net.) called "Comfort Wrap."

You wouldn't want to wear the shawl in the rain or, for that matter, anywhere else. The wrap is meant for display purposes only, just like any other piece of contemporary art.

"I wanted to make something beautiful from old paperback novels that no one wants anymore," Brandt says.

"Comfort Wrap" won the top prize in the 2009 Altered Book Competition sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The artists say that the recent proliferation of book-based crafts reflects a profound shift taking place in the way that bookworms view their favorite pastime.

As long as there have been bound volumes, some readers have valued them primarily for their content; for others, the object's aesthetic properties have been paramount.

For example, illuminated Bibles from the Middle Ages, with their elaborate illustrations adorned with malachite and lapis lazuli and their oversized letters burnished with gold and silver, can attract even atheists.

But it wasn't until the creation of computers that it was possible to think of the physical book, with its bindings and glued pages, as occupying a different part of the universe than the virtual book of stories, ideas and arguments.

Readers began to realize that maybe books didn't live only inside libraries and bookstores. Maybe they also lived inside some machines. The advent of such portable e-readers as the Kindle, Nook and iPad only widened the divide between the object and its content.

In that light, Rosenau's "Inversion" isn't merely funny — it's positively metaphysical.

Suddenly, it became possible for Ellicott City artist Kristen Christy to convert former Golden Books into colorful birdhouses ($18 at http://www.etsy.com) ideal for hanging in a children's bedroom without fear of criticism. "The Poky Little Puppy", she says, is a particular customer favorite.

"People are initially less shocked by the destruction of the book because they realize the ideas in it aren't bound in paper but can take so many forms," Phillips said. "Books have lost a little bit of their untouchableness, and that's a good thing."

At the same time, books have been held in reverence for a very long time, and some artists and designers intentionally play around with those historic associations.

For instance, Grace Macfarlane, an 18-year-old senior at Baltimore's School for the Arts, has chosen not to display her fanciful watercolors and sketches on walls. Instead, she binds them between leather covers, which are themselves works of art.

Macfarlane says the familiar rectangular shape lends gravitas to whatever images or ideas are contained within.

"As an aesthetic object, books seem very old and serious," Macfarlane says. "Things in book form seem more important than maybe than they actually are. If you have something bound together and printed, you know it will be there for a long time."

Some artists also are motivated by environmental concerns. When Rosenau makes a coffee table from a pile of books that have been read once and thrown away, or Macfarlane scoops up her college brochures and turns them into paper for her illustrations, they are finding another use for something that would have ended up in the trash.

"When books were first printed, they were valuable because they were so scarce," Rosenau says. "Now, people have the opposite problem. How many books are printed each year? There are only so many that people can read."

When Phillips graduated from high school, she worked at a used bookstore and says she was staggered by the waste she witnessed.

"I was really shocked at how many books we couldn't sell and ended up throwing away because they were unwanted," she says. "I would take them home and think, 'Some day I will make something out of them. And now, I am.' "


Homes by the book

Sometimes, you really can judge a book by its cover. Gerald Smith, the Washington-based designer behind GL Smith Associates, offers the following tips for incorporating your favorite volumes into your home decor:

Display books that reflect the homeowner's passions. "The selection of books should be meaningful in some way," Smith says. "They might be travel books about places the owner has visited, or books that reflect an art collection or another personal interest. I seldom ever put books on a shelf just to put them there. Otherwise, the books become purely decorative and the house becomes a showroom."

Don't be afraid to use books in untraditional ways. "Use them as platforms for picture frames or artwork or sculpture," Smith says. "I might put a few books beneath a table lamp to add a little height. Or if the owner has a large collection of books, I've even been known to stack them up as an occasional table next to a chair for a look that is very spontaneous and casual."

Don't worry if the books you choose aren't in like-new condition. Yellowing pages, minor stains and tears can actually enhance the look. "If they are older books and they have a little bit of wear on them, I don't have a problem with that," Smith said. "It's called 'patina.' "

Cluster, Buster. "When there aren't enough books displayed together, they get lost," Smith says. "The collection loses significance."

Appearances count. Sure, a book's content matters most. But that's no reason to willfully ignore any and all aesthetic considerations. Hardcover books, for example, are always preferable to paperbacks.

"The wrong color in the room can really make a difference," Smith says. "A chartreuse book won't work in a room that's all burgundy and green. But, that same book might be fine in an all white or all black room, where the color really jumps out at you."